In a clash of history and scholarship with politics, Professor Ashton’s book, Blinded by Corona, pits two centuries of public health science, a discipline developed in Britain, against the cabinet’s response to COVID-19. Whereas public health science says to rely on prevention, not pyrotechnics, the cabinet instead went its own way and chose to have inexperienced corporations design hi-tech solutions for them from a standing start. The cabinet’s approach of placing orders with such companies to come up with national solutions is both contrary to science and is further aggravated by the fact that these orders were overseen by novices in the field of public health.
Two centuries of learning says that epidemics should be handled by on-the-ground local public-health teams intimately familiar with the social groups in their area. They can adapt and communicate effective hygiene and social-distancing requirements to the fine-grained variety of stratification – from prison populations to vacationers, from second-homers to immigrant groups. This fundamental science has served Britain well during many epidemics and scares, from salmonella, legionella, novichok and Swine ’flu to the Spanish ’flu and cholera earlier in modern history.
Britain was (and remains) particularly poorly served by its specialist scientists. Of the four Chief Medical Officers, only one (Frank Atherton, Wales) had any public health training and expertise. The others were drawn from the world of research grants and Oxbridge and Imperial College networks.
In January, the team headed by the Chief Medical Officer of England adopted a clinical definition of COVID-19 that atrophied the ability of the NHS or public health officials to test potential carriers for the virus. While the reason for this is not entirely clear, nor whether it was politically sanctioned, it doomed Britain from the start. Additionally, Britain’s epidemiological modellers failed Britain in February. The UCL, Imperial, Cambridge, Oxford modellers were pitching for status and funding rather than providing best-possible science that created reliable options for the government. These issues remain unresolved and have created a toxic dysfunctional soup of indecision where no one is in charge and Britain is forced to waltz on three legs.
Professor Ashton’s has lifelong hands-on experience as well as scholarly knowledge and international recognition as one of the world’s leading experts on public health and the appropriate public health response to COVID-19. His book has gathered heavyweight support from colleagues attached below. In February, he called the pandemic almost three weeks before the WHO, but his urging for early action came under vociferous attacks by government supporters on BBC Newsnight and BBC Question Time, with its presenter concluding ‘you are a reasonably lone voice.’ Time has proved him right, however, and six months on his expert analysis of the road ahead is being joined by a growing number of leading medical and public health experts in the UK.
John Ashton is advisor to Bahrain’s Covid Task Force and involved in the response to Covid in Britain, Professor at the University of Liverpool and University London, School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He was a Regional Director of Public Health, President of the Faculty of Public Health, set up the Liverpool Health Observatory and was a founder of the World Health Organization Healthy Cities Initiative. Ashton trained as a doctor at the University of Newcastle Medical School and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. As a spectator, he triaged the dying and wounded at the Hillsborough Disaster and, from the first day, spoke out when the fans were blamed, providing his eyewitness account as a doctor.
Here is a selection of critic comments:
- British Journal of General Practitioners – ‘Clearly written… accessible to a wide lay readership… Ashton’s dissection of government ineptitude is forensic… [a] fascinating, detailed and excoriating critique of an inadequate response to a crisis which will spark recognition amongst GPs and, one hopes, learning in the corridors of power.’
- Doctors for the NHS – ‘A shocking and distressing account of mismanagement.’
- Choice Magazine – ‘Controversial but important.’
- ‘Excellent.’ Jon Snow
- ‘A manifesto… jargon-free.’ James O’Brien, LBC
- ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’ Ken Loach
- ‘Highly critical.’ Piers Morgan, Good Morning Britain ITV
- ‘Erudite, uncompromising… The answers are in these pages.’ Professor Kamran Abbasi, Executive Editor British Medical Journal
- ‘Everyone should read this book… powerful and penetrating.’ Professor Roger Kirby, President Royal Society of Medicine
- ‘Hard to put down… A must-read.’ Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Public Health, University of Edinburgh
- ‘Wholly compelling and incontrovertible.’ Professor Steve Tombs, Criminology Open University
- ‘A living historical sociology of the pandemic.’ Dr Michael Lambert, Sociology Department Lancaster University
- ‘Ashton is calling this one correctly.’ Professor Gabriel Scally, Member Independent Sage, President of Epidemiology and Public Health, Royal Society of Medicine
- ‘Informative and so important.’ Former Conservative MP CHarlotte Leslie, Chair of CMEC
- ‘Entitled to say “I told you so”.’ Lord Alton, House of Lords Liberal Democrat
- ‘Withering.’ Jonathan Fryer